New Voices for Old Instruments: the Kouxian and the Sheng
Top: Three hairpin-shaped bamboo Jew’s harp with case. Though this one was collected in southwest China, it is typically found anywhere from Thailand to Borneo. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of Major Alva R. Smith (1948.48.166). Bottom: Horseshoe-shaped Jew’s harp with the lamella inserted in the metal frame. Russia, 19th century. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection (1889. 89.4.994)
The etymology of the term “Jew’s harp,” an English moniker with no connection to the Jewish people, is obscure but may derive from corruptions of several words: jaw, juice, jeu, jeugd, or gewgaw. Jew’s harps are found in many cultures, from Oceania and Asia to Europe and sub-Saharan Africa, and have countless local names. Evidence suggests the Jew’s harp was first developed in Asia and made its way to Central and Northern Europe around the 13th century, perhaps appearing in Gallo-Roman areas even earlier.
The instrument consists of a horseshoe- or hairpin-shaped frame that surrounds a flexible lamella (tongue). In the West, the metal horseshoe version with a separately attached lamella is best known, but in Asia and Oceania, hairpin- or leaf-shaped instruments with the lamella cut directly into the metal or bamboo frame are more common. Like the metal kouxian found in the southwest provinces of China, this type is often linked in sets of three or more graduated sizes that expand the instrument’s limited range. To play a Jew’s harp, a musician places it in front of the lips and teeth, vibrates the lamella with the hand, and then varies the position of the larynx and tongue to amplify different overtones within the mouth to create a musical line.
Sheng. China, Qing dynasty (1644–1911), late 19th century Wood, metal, reed, ivory. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, The Crosby Brown Collection (1889. 89.4.96)
"The sheng’s ingenious method of sound production spread in the 18th century, and it inspired European instruments like the harmonica, accordion, and reed organ."
Ken Moore is the Frederick P. Rose Curator in Charge in the Department of Musical Instruments at The Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Lincoln Center Festival presents Wang Li (Jew’s harps) and Wu Wei (sheng) on Saturday, July 23, at 8:00 pm. Learn more about the performance.